Just for a short visit

Yangzhou pavillion

“I’m really glad you took us here, thank you.”

“Yes, it’s really pleasant, isn’t it.”

It was my parents’ first visit to China, and after a few days running around the busy streets of Nanjing, I thought a day-trip to Yangzhou would make them happy.

“Is this the same tea we tried yesterday? It tastes a bit different.”

“Yay, yesterday was Osmanthus tea, this one is just green tea, I’m not sure what kind.”

They were enjoying themselves, at least reasonably, but I was exhausted. They didn’t speak a word of Mandarin, and I had to organize everything.

“Get the last cake, mum.”

“No, you have it – I’m finding them a bit heavy, and I need to leave room for tonight.”

The culmination of their journey was coming soon: a big introduction dinner to my future in-laws. Below the gleeful surface, that’s all we were thinking about.

“Should we go?” I suggested, biting into the last gingko-nut cake.

We stood up from the wooden table, and resumed our stroll across the canals of the Slender West Lake area, crossing over arched bridges, wandering through bamboo groves, or gazing through circular moon-gates at the distant pavilions. Then, exhausted from so much beauty, we got a cab to the station, and arrived just on time for the 5h05 train back to Nanjing.

We sat opposite a loud group of country people who kept staring at us for most of the trip, repeating the word ‘laowai, laowai’, and laughing. They reeked of cold tobacco, and spat sunflower shells all over the floor. My mother did a regal job of ignoring them, but I could see my father passive aggressively looking out the window. His goal was probably to shame them into silence, but his behaviour had absolutely no success.

Chen Jie came to pick us up at the station, and escorted us back to Gulou. My parents had 15 minutes to refresh. ‘That should be enough’, said my mother, ‘I’ve already chosen my dress and shoes for tonight’, but I could see that my father was annoyed at having to rush. ‘We’ll be waiting in the lobby’, I said, hoping that would encouarge them to do their business quickly.

‘So will you go to Yangzhou again?’ asked Chen Jie. She was wearing a slim black top with thin straps, revealing her slender round shoulders. Her hair was attached in a ponytail, and her eyes shone their black magic back at me. ‘You know I love it there. Maybe we should go for our honeymoon.’

She gave me a mock-smack on the arm: ‘You said Paris.’

I laughed, and held her in my arms, while she mock-pouted – meanwhile pressing her body close to me mine.

‘Do you think your parents will arrive early?’ I asked.

‘That’s OK, you don’t need to worry.’ She replied. But I knew she didn’t mean it: 7h30 was late for a Chinese dinner, and I didn’t want my family to seem impolite.

The trip to Yangzhou would play in our favour though. Chen Jie’s father was working for the local government there through the nineties, before he got transferred to the regional capital. According to the family mythology, he played a crucial role in protecting historical parts of the city from destruction – which made him a retrospective hero when authentic Ming dynasty temples started to push up the price of nearby commercial real estate.

By 7h10, my parents still hadn’t made their way back to the lobby, and I started feeling murderous instincts. I could picture the Chens alone at a large table, and their impassive smile.

‘Maybe your parents are tired, and they needed some rest’ said Chen Jie.

‘They’re fine,’ I replied, ‘they just don’t have a very good sense of time’.

I started dreading the coming dinner. Would my father sit brooding all night, or make obnoxious remarks about China? How should I react if he did? Play filial son, and shut up, or politely contradict him, at the risk of us all losing face? Chen Jie was generally my guide through these arcanes of cross-cultural politeness codes, but when it came to my family, I couldn’t dream of asking her directly.

They finally came down at 7h15. ‘It’s my fault’, said my mother, ‘sorry: I had my dress on, and then I made a big stain with my lipstick.’ Chen Jie smiled ‘It’s OK, you can be late in China.’ My father though it was the perfect moment to press his point: ‘See – you’ve been rushing us for nothing.’ I cringed.

We finally made it only ten minutes late. The Chens had insisted on taking my parents to ‘Grandma Xiang’, a new traditional Jiangsu restaurant on the top floor of the Golden Eagle shopping mall. ‘Are we going to some sort of food court then?’ asked my mother, slightly perplexed, when we stepped onto the escalator past a Starbucks, and emerged into aisles of menswear. I explained, again, that the best places in China were often located inside shopping malls: ‘I guess it’s just the way they do it then,’ she said, and on we went along stalls of jade jewellery.

For better or worse, the place was remarkably noisy – hot and loud, as the Chinese say. The waiter escorted us to a window table where the Chens were waiting for us. There were two small cups of green tea on the table, and a small plate of sunflower seeds, untouched. Everyone shook hands, unsure how much physical contact was appropriate on a first meeting. Then we all sat down, foreign parents facing Chinese parents, while Chen Jie and I took both ends of the table, so that we could informally translate through the dinner.

The dinner was painful, but catastrophe was avoided. Conversation rolled over first impressions of China to the canals of Yangzhou, then to modest insights into the Chen family mythology. High-speed and low-speed trains featured – the pace of urbanisation – and heritage conservation. Then the food arrived: salted duck in thin slices, sweet lotus root, stinky tofu. Mrs Chen remarked, impressed, how agile my mother was with her chopsticks, and Mr Chen, cheerful, called for a bottle of Baijiu.

My father fought over the bill, as I instructed him to, but the Chens had already made a deal with the restaurant. We duly thanked them, promised a similar feast when they came visit, and shook hands – this time with slightly less embarrassment – outside the doors of the Golden Eagle shopping mall. Chen Jie walked her parents back home, while I escorted mine in a taxi.

‘Chen Jie’s really lovely’ my mother said when we got back into their room. ‘How long have you known each other now?’

‘It’s been almost a year, but we’ve only been seriously dating for five months.’

‘I can’t believe you’ve been gone for so long’, she commented.

My father walked up to the window, and looked outside.

‘You know,’ I said, ‘there’s many Westerners dating Chinese girls, but I’m lucky with Chen Jie. It means a lot that we’ve just had this dinner. Generally, Chinese families are not too keen on their daughters marrying a Westerner.’

My mother was looking at me, smiling.

‘But I think it went well today.’

‘Did we make you proud at least?’ asked my father, turning around. My mother laughed – ‘oh, don’t tease him.’

‘You did a good job, dad,’ I replied, and he went over to sit in an armchair opposite me.

My mother was boiling water now, and shuffling around the kitchen:

‘So, do you have a date for the wedding?’ she asked?

‘Not yet – but we’re thinking next year in Spring.’

‘Are you doing it here, or coming back home?’

‘Probably here – and then Paris for our honeymoon.’

She nodded: ‘We’re just getting used to it now, but soon we’ll be experts.’

Then my father said: ‘I never thought, when you were little, that you would take us to China.’

I wasn’t an early sinophile: I studied French in high school, and had no particular interest in Asia beside kung-fu movies and pork dumplings. Then I got this scholarship to spend a year in Taiwan, and that’s when it really started.

‘It’s a fascinating country,’ my father was putting on his serious news-analysis face, ’I mean, it came out of nowhere – Japan, yes – but China? And then suddenly, it’s all everyone’s interested in. But you’ve already studied the language, and now you’re introducing us to local aristocracy.’

My mother made a little loving noise, and I smiled back at him.

‘Seriously, I’m wondering – are Chen Jie’s parents actually powerful? I don’t really know what anything means here.’

My mother laughed: ‘Richard, It doesn’t matter. I think they were really nice people.’

But I still thought I should reply something: ‘I think they are – but I’m not too sure. I’m just figuring things out as I go.’

‘You’ve always been adventurous,’ he said. ‘Remember that time we were camping in the mountains, and there was a river nearby: it was so cold, you were the only one mad enough to go swim there – and you kept mocking us for not following you; then one day you got caught in a whirlpool, and I had to jump in and rescue you?’

We gave each other a warm smile of affection, then started exchanging memories of past holidays together.

‘Water’s ready,’ said my mother, ‘What would you like? Lipton teabags from the hotel, or that nice green tea we bought today?’

‘Don’t open the pack mum,’ I replied – ‘I’m happy with just a teabag.’

Then I beckoned my father to the window: ‘Come, I think we can see my apartment from here. I’ll show you.’

NOTE: This story is the fifth in a planned series of #52, recomposing my memories of a term in China through fiction. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. This story was written with the help of DraftQuest. Image and story are copyright @julienleyre.

The Sentinel

Wuhan river

There’s a special beauty to the Chinese smog. It’s not only the shades of pink and grey, but the way it affects our perception of these old cities – from a distance, it blurs away the wrinkles.

I chose to live not far from the river. I try to walk there every day, sometimes in the morning, sometimes at sunset. Surprisingly, not many people seem to do that. The few friends I’ve taken along all found it peaceful and relaxing, yet they would never come on their own. Most of the riverside people are regulars, elderly couples, women with dogs, probably locals.

One of them I call ‘the sentinel’: a short man with a square face, in his late fifties or early sixties. He sits on a bench opposite the TV tower, wears tinted glasses, and looks out across the Yangtze to the towers of Hankou. I’ve seen him before sunrise, and I’ve seen him after sunset, but I’ve never seen him in the broad daylight. Sometimes, he plays traditional music from a small radio, and once he was practicing Tai Chi, but most of the time, he’s just sitting there, watching.

Is this man a corrupt official who made his fortune selling construction permits, and looks across the river at a real estate empire that his pen authorized? Is he the local mafia boss dispatching orders across the gambling underworld from this inconspicuous riverside bench? Or is he living a peaceful retirement funded by a rich son, cosmetic surgeon in Phoenix, who returns home once a year with a suitcase full of dollars? Every time I see the sentinel, I make up a different story for him, and let my shapeless fantasies of China cristallise on his static figure. Today, I’ve decided he was a retired public servant enjoying the contemplative pleasures of an early State pension after a lifetime pushing papers at the marriage registry.

The reason I think about this man so much is sheer loneliness. I build imaginary worlds around him, because if they were true, then I would be part of the local story, even as its anonymous narrator. And this illusion keeps me sane.

It’s a sad story, but it’s not an original one. I came to Wuhan two years ago. I teach maths in international schools, and after years in Latin America, I wanted to try something different. Central China wasn’t my first choice, but the conditions were good: high salary, reasonable working hours, and a three-year contract. Shanghai and Singapore both rejected my application, Wuhan was the best offer, and I moved here.

I didn’t have any friends in this part of China, but I’m sociable, and thought I would quickly meet people through the school and on the local expat scene. I was thirty-two when I landed, single, and looking for no more than casual company. I didn’t expect I would fall in love, especially with an expat. It was months of extreme happiness. We met after class, and walked along the river holding hands, kissing in the soft pink light. We took the metro to Hankou for late-night snacks, went boating on the lake, and visited nearby cities on the week-end: Jingmen, Ezhou, Huangshi. But her studies ended, she couldn’t get her visa renewed, and she flew back to Bologna.

That’s when my depression started.

I’ve been an expat teacher for the last eight years. It’s a good life: good money, good work, and a sense of adventure. When you’re tired of a place, you move on: and it’s a new culture, a new language, a new landscape. New bars, new friends. But after Giulia left, I suddenly felt old and empty.

I thought of doing the romantic thing, leave my job in Wuhan and follow her to Bologna. But there was nothing for me there. ‘Italy’s hard’, she repeated, ‘I’ve got friends with two, three Masters’ degrees, and they can’t find a teaching job.’ We calculated, cost of living, rent, average salary: the figures didn’t add up, and I didn’t have the courage to risk all my savings on this relationship. So she left, and I stayed. New bars, new friends – but nobody like her.

Slowly, I retreated from the expat scene. I stayed home after class, reading everything I could find about China: travel books, history books, novels; blogs and wikipedia pages. I spent all my week ends inside museums, trying to memorize every sign, remember the details of every piece on display. Giulia was gone, but if I could absorb China, then staying in the country would make sense.

After six months of this routine, on a Monday morning, I woke up from a Chinese dream: for a moment in my sleep, I had become a Chinese person. I was an old scholar sitting at the top of a mountain, under a pine tree, listening to the songs of birds. Then I was inside a pavilion, with painted red pillars and a phoenix on the roof. A slender cage hung from a rafter, and inside, there was a mechanical bird of shining gold, who spoke words I didn’t understand, but sounded like human language.

I started noticing new things around me that day – the crispy sound of cooking crepes on the street, the smell of chilli, the shrill mix of women’s voices. There were still clouds in the sky, but the worst of darkness had passed. That evening, for the first time since Giulia left, I walked along the river. That’s when I first saw the sentinel.

I remember him very precisely: the brown fabric of his jacket, the square shape of his face, the tinted glasses, and the closed wide lips. He sat on a bench, facing the TV tower, perfectly still. I stood behind him, and started telling myself stories about his life. That first time, fragments of my dream merged in with his figure: I imagined him as a bird-seller from the nearby pet-market, training jays and magpies to greet their future owners with a clear ‘ni hao’.

I slept well that night, and woke up with an appetite for life. I came to the river again before class, and he was there. This time, I thought of him as a former air-traffic controller for the Chinese army, projecting complex ballets of landings and take-offs on the pink empty sky – then, anxiously picturing enemy planes invading the landscape from the North, dropping bombs on the new constructions, erasing in a day the physical traces of Wuhan’s modernity.

I’m standing behind him now, very close. He’s mumbling something in the local dialect, which I don’t understand. He doesn’t seem to notice my presence. It’s the first time I’ve been so close to him, and I can feel a strange sort of cold coming from his body.

Then I hear a woman call me ‘foreigner’. I turn around: she’s one of the regulars, a middle-aged woman with short wavy hair and a round face. Her dog is pulling the leash, growling. ‘Come here’, she says, ‘It’s dangerous’. Then again, more insistent, as I hesitate ‘Come’. I walk over to her, and she grabs my arm, very strong: ‘Don’t get close to him, he’s dangerous.’

Then to my question ‘why’, reluctantly, she replies with a single word: ‘ghost’, and walks away. The sentinel hasn’t moved. Now I expect him to dissolve into the mist, or turn into something terrifying and run towards me with a gaping mouth, but he doesn’t. I wait a while, then I smile at him, and mumble: ‘See you tomorrow, buddy’.

NOTE: This story is the fourth in a planned series of #52, recomposing my memories of a term in China through fiction. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. This story was written with the help of DraftQuest. Image and story are copyright @julienleyre.

“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go.”


Since mid-November, the Golden Century Mall was blaring out a Christmas mix on repeat.

I first walked into the Golden Century Mall at the end of August, a few days after arriving in Nanjing. Although I would have probably gone there anyway, sooner or later, that first time was really just in order to find shelter from the rain. But retrospectively, that became a meaningfully symbolic first encounter, since the Golden Century Mall – or ‘the Golden’ as I call it – quickly became my safe place in Nanjing. I go there in the daytime to sit at the little Costa Coffee tucked away on level five and read a book or study; and I go there in the late evenings for a quiet stroll along empty luxury stores and Western restaurants. In this chaotic city, with road-works, honking scooters and people shouting everywhere, walking along the clean, quiet floors of ‘the Golden’ is like visiting a spa.

Needless to say, that Christmas mix has had a major impact on my mood.

Mind you, it’s not that I hate Christmas – I used to rather like it actually. Back home in Australia, Christmas was holidays and beach time – fish and chips on the sand, barbecues in friends’ backyards, volley-ball. Then during my time In Berlin, I always took a plane south for Christmas – Spain, Italy, Morrocco, Senegal – so that I could get some heat back inside me, and these were always happy times. Even last year, my contract in Tianjin ended right on Christmas Eve, and I flew directly to Yunnan for much nicer air and livable temperatures. But this year, Nanjing sucked out all my energy, and I haven’t even been able to plan a trip away. Not that I would know where to go: my dreams of exotic travels are gone. I don’t even crave home anymore: I’ve been away too long for it to make any sense.

– I think China’s just affecting my mental health.

– …

– I’m finding it really hard to relax.

– …

– It’s just the air, and the weather, and the people – everything’s just really weird and aggressive.

– …

– Well, I try to get a massage every week, that helps a bit.

– …

– I guess, I haven’t really made friends. I don’t know, the expats are just… the ones I met have been actually pretty vile.

– …

– Oh, just men drooling over Chinese girls, and the women, I don’t know, they’re just air-heads, the ones I spoke to.

– …

– Thanks, I might try to do that – have a good night!

– …

– Kisses!

I don’t want to develop a facebook addiction, but it’s the only thing that gets me out of here. That and streaming movies. Except when my VPN isn’t working, or my internet is down, and then I get even more depressed. All I want for Christmas is just – to have myself a merry little Christmas. It’s not asking for much, it’s just what the soundtrack is telling me to do. But I don’t have any faithful friends here, to gather near to me once more.

And on top of that, now my safe place is making me crazy. When I sit at the Costa Coffee trying to read, all I can think about is Christmas, Christmas everywhere. They’ve done this weird thing too: they’ve hung a full set of stuffed reindeers upside down over their indoor ice-rink. Well yes, there’s an indoor ice-rink inside the Golden, on level four, you can see it from the Costa and that’s pretty weird already. But the reindeers are just, really bizarre. I mean, what next? indoor snowflakes? A live-in Santa? Make-your-own-snowman workshops for the kids? So yes, now I decided every time I come to the Golden, I’m just going to lie down on the floor for a minute, and look up at the reindeers, dreaming of a white Christmas. It sounds crazy, but it’s working for me.

I was lying on the floor like that when the face of a young woman with too much make up on bent over me. “Excuse me, are you from America?” She needed more flesh on her bones, but at least she was polite. “I’m from Australia”, I replied, standing up. I almost hoped she was from the mall and would ask me to leave, but no: there was a full TV crew behind her. Maybe they were shooting this new program showing foreigners in embarrassing positions, and I’d just been caught?

“Would you like to do an interview with us? Share about Christmas in your country?”

I don’t know what came into me, but that’s when I thought, you know what, I’m just gonna make shit up. “Sure,” I said, “can we do it now?” I don’t know, it was the setting, the Christmas music, the ice-rink: I stood up, facing the cameras, and I started my riff.

“In Australia, we’ve got a summer Christmas, it’s not cold like here. So there’s a few strange customs. Everyone wears a swimsuit for lunch, because we’re all on the beach, but the women wear gloves and the men a jacket and tie, so it’s a bit formal. Also, some families do the Christmas race: the kids all dress up as reindeers, and they must run to the place where all the presents are: it’s a lot of fun. And then, all December, we play ‘spot Santa’ – that’s what I was doing here – you lie down on your back, and look up in the sky, trying to spot the flying sleigh. There’s people spotting him every year, and you see pictures in the paper – I wonder if I’m gonna spot him this year.”

The skinny woman with too much make-up on nodded all the way, then she politely said “thank you”, and handed a name-card: I should send her an email to find out when the program was on. I’m not sure if they’re gonna show the footage, but it would be fun if they did. I mean, it sounds outrageous, but I’m sure there’s been guys on drugs to lie down on the ground and play Spot Santa somewhere in Australia.

The TV crew left, and I lay down again. The rein-deers had a mysterious kind of sparkle, maybe their fur was made of shiny material, or maybe that was just an effect of the Golden Century Mall spotlights reflected on the flat surface of ice below. Jingle bells were jingling through the air, mingling with the wafts of coffee from Costa. Wave after wave of new families descended from the nearby escalators, alternating girls in yellow boots and oddly quiet little boys. Then for a second, the music stopped, and the shrill voice of a child echoed around, shouting ‘I’m coming, I’m coming’.

Then the music started again, “Silent Night” – and for the first time in a very long while, I felt happy, calm and peaceful.

NOTE: This story is the third in a planned series of #52, recomposing my memories of a term in China through fiction. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. This story was written with the help of DraftQuest. Image and story are copyright @julienleyre.

The Blue Bell Cafe

black tofu

“I wish I had another stomach, but I’m really full – you finish.”

There just weren’t enough meals in the day. The whole pleasure of a trip to China was tasting the snacks and food you couldn’t get anywhere else, the fried catfish with beans in a red sauce, the spicy pork bun, the sugar-coated crab-apples. And the black stinky tofu. May picked out her phone and googled black tofu: “I wanna learn how to make it myself!”

The two girls were walking under the plane trees on the Changsha university campus. Penny taught English at Hunan Normal, May was here on a short visit. She’d come to see relatives in Guangzhou – the train was only two and a half hours. Then she would head up to Shanghai, and fly from there directly to London.

“That’s where Mao studied,” Penny said, pointing at a large building with painted eaves on the left. “Isn’t it – weird – to think of him as a nineteen year old, walking along that path, looking at that same mountain over there?”


Penny was a perfect host so far: May had nothing to complain about. She’d come to the high-speed station in the far eastern suburbs, took her on a guided tour of the old district, and paid for their foot massage. Now she was showing her around the campus, diligently stopping at each interesting food-stall. Yet something in her friend’s attitude irritated her non-stop since they first got on the bus 709, and Penny started a long rant about the Chinese class system. “Migrant workers actually get a decent salary, you know. Just as long as there’s work for them – but there’s no security. That’s why they keep building up new towers: otherwise, if it stopped, there could be trouble.”

Penny’s knowledge came largely from conversations – held in Mandarin – at the ‘Blue Bell’ cafe. The Blue Bell was an institution of Changsha’s intellectual Left Bank. It opened in 1994, was run by a migrant from Hong Kong, and had been adopted as informal headquarters by student union leaders, the Hunan University Chess club, and a couple of local poets. They had an ‘East Asian’ movie night every first Wednesday of the month, and hosted musical events on the week-end. Penny first went by accident. She made friends with the day-time chief waiter, and became their resident westerner.

May didn’t like that bar at all. Something about it was spooky. Maybe the strange golden masks on the wall, or the blurry photographs of Asian girls in thick black frames. “They’re by a local artist,” Penny said, “his name is Zhang Wuxi. I met him here – he’s even asked me to model for him. Hey, I can send him a text if you like? Maybe we could have dinner with him tonight?”

May politely replied “sure.” Penny’s show off was irritating, but maybe meeting a local photographer could be fun.

Zhang Wuxi was not available for dinner, but he would meet them for a beer afterwards. “That’s OK, we can have dinner just the two of us: there’s a great place I wanna take you – Hunan style yum cha, it’s so good! They’ve got spicy red pepper salad and steamed beef.”


May and Penny took a taxi back to the Blue Bell cafe, where Zhang Wuxi was waiting for them. He sat at a window table on the first floor, with a bottle of Tsingtao beer. It was a clear day, and in the distance, they could see the Martyrs’ tower, sparkling with lights.

“We can just speak Chinese,” Penny said – Zhang Wuxi’s English was poor, and imposing a foreign language would limit interactions and bring embarrassment. May could understand that very well. Her Mandarin was patchy, and she wasn’t used to Hunan accents; but she was happy to just nod and smile politely while drifting around her own inner world, ordering memories of the days in Guangzhou with her cousin, and imagining her future life in Europe. She was heading for an apprenticeship at ‘Purple Jasmine’, the most renowned fusion restaurant in London. Their ‘wasabi veal’ had been selected as runner-up for best new dish on Good Eats magazine, and their sichuan pepper risotto won the ‘best rice-dish in London’ award. She combined flavours in her head, recalling surprising discoveries from the last few days, and experimented imaginary Hunan-inspired English food: deep-fried black tofu, chips and vinegar.

Zhang Wuxi was a disturbing figure: even though he never addressed May directly, she could feel him scrutinise her face, as if assessing where the shadows would fall on her cheekbones under different lights. Then he took out his phone, played around with it, and handed it to her. “Look,” he said. The photo showed a tall staircase, shot from the bottom up. He pointed out the window: “It’s that tower there. I’d like to take you tomorrow.”

Shuwen, the owner, came to their table at that precise moment, carrying a small plate of boiled peanuts: “I made them today, try them!” They were delicious “Is it aniseed and chilli?” Penny smiled: “Maybe you can teach my friend how to make them? She’s going to work at a fancy restaurant in London.”

Zhang Wuxi grabbed a few peanuts and took leave: “Tomorrow, 2pm, at the tower?” May smiled and nodded to Penny, who confirmed approval. “We were planning to visit the park anyway – we’d love to see it through your eyes – but don’t feel obliged, I know you’re very busy.”

“It would be my pleasure. See you tomorrow.”


Zhang Wuxi was waiting outside the grey stone door of the Martyrs’ tower. When he saw the girls walk up the stairs, he took a few steps to greet them: “You came, thank you”. They followed him inside through the marble atrium to a small lateral room with black and white photographs hanging on the walls.

He stopped and pointed a finger at one of them. May quivered a bit. Zhang Wuxi was intensely staring at her face, observing how the shadows fell on her cheekbones. Penny didn’t say a word. “She does look a lot like me,” May finally broke the silence. Penny commented: “It’s the first I’ve noticed how Chinese you look.”  But by then, May’s attention had already drifted entirely to that photograph and the story Zhang Wuxi would share.

The woman was Wu Meihua. She was a nurse at Changsha hospital, where she ran the first cell of the Chinese Communist Party. “She was my great aunt”, said Zhang Wuxi, “a personal friend of Mao Zedong, and an exceptional woman.” She died in the revolution, leaving a twin sister behind, Wu Mingzhu: “In our family, we call her the feeder of the people: she saved a lot of lives – but her picture will never hang in any monument.” He took out an old photograph for May to see. “You can always tell twins apart,” and after a pause, “you look more like her.”


They left the monument and walked along the pink flowerbeds to the lake. On the way, Penny stopped at a small Mc Donald’s booth to buy three cups of coffee.

Zhang Wuxi continued his family story. When she learnt about her sister’s death, Mingzhu made it her mission to survive – and help others around her survive. During the great famine, in the late fifties, her vow came to the test. As provisions got more and more scarce, she managed to run a secret bun shop, and prosper. Soon, however, rumours started circulating. Her buns tasted unusual. Week after week, the rumours got worse: dogs, rats, worms, beetles, corpses. Customers became aggressive: “What are you feeding us?” Nobody would speak to her on the street. Still, she survived, and kept her neighbourhood alive. Then, when the famine was over, officials knocked on her door. Black market profiteering was a serious crime: not only did Mingzhu lose her life to it, but the whole family suffered afterwards.


May’s plane for Shanghai was leaving early the next morning. Penny took her to the Blue Bell Cafe for a last drink. Zhang Wuxi was there: “I thought you would come”. He picked one of the thick black frames from the wall, and handed it over to May. Twin sisters, one wearing a nurse uniform, the other a chef hat. “Take it”.

Penny said – in English – “it’s beautiful!” May replied – in Mandarin – “it is beautiful.” Zhang Wuxi was intensely staring at her face, observing where the shadows fell on her cheekbones. “It’s my last night.” But he thought otherwise. “There are no last nights, people return.” And with a very thin smile, he asked her – “Would you like to come to my place, later? I’d love to take a photograph of you.”

NOTE: This story is the second in a planned series of #52, recomposing my memories of a term in China through fiction. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. This story was written with the help of DraftQuest. Image and story are copyright @julienleyre.

New comer

Top of the stairs, nanjing

“Come up”, he said, pointing at the stairs, “We can have lunch together – pasta with pesto – I even got us cheese from Metro. Extra-Swiss, a special treat”.

“Sounds amazing! What’s Metro?” I asked.

“Oh, you’re gonna love it! it’s a big Western supermarket – expat paradise! They’ve got everything, cheese, chocolate, wine, and beautiful fresh meat. I go once or twice a month to stock up. I’ll take you.”

Expat paradise? What was he talking about: I came here for the real experience. I can get Swiss cheese back home  anytime. I followed him up a flight of public stairs on the side of a wall, next to a “Flavours of Shaanxi” noodle shop. The stairs were weird, like everything else in Nanjing. There were steps in the middle, wide enough for one and a half person; on each side of them was a diagonal slope, maybe for bikes or shopping trolleys – but I still struggled with my pull-along suitcase.

“Do you need any help?” He said.

“I’m fine.” He was generous enough to let me stay with him, I shouldn’t bother him with my suitcase.

I turned back towards the street when I reached the landing. Parked cars, next to golden lions. A busy cross-roads. Tall buildings in the distance, half hidden by the romantic haze of smog.


We walked up the lane towards his place. “There’s been works here non-stop”, he said, “since I arrived, they’ve dug up this road, like, six or seven times.”

“What were they digging for?” I asked.

“Water pipes, gas pipes, other water pipes – maybe gold – or just for the sake of it. It should be quiet now. The mayor got sacked, did you read about it? Too much digging, that brought him down.”

We passed along a sheltered area where old people sat with their dogs, playing cards. Piles of construction material, debris and rubbish in all shapes and colours were scattered left and right.

At the end of the laneway, we turned into a courtyard: “Welcome to my xiao qu”, he said, moving slightly to the left, inviting me to go past him. “It’s not glamorous, but it’s authentic. You’ve got the cats, you’ve got the plants, there’s clothes drying on the line, and every morning, there’s a lady practicing martial arts with a sword… come, I live up there.”

He took me up two flights of stairs, and gave me the key. “The door’s hard – try it,” he pointed at a little bump on the side of the key, “that bit goes up, like that.” I forced a little, and the key turned in the lock.

“I’ll go in first, come”. He grabbed my suitcase and invited me in.

This was my first time visiting a Chinese apartment, and I was a bit surprised to find it so normal. A main living area with a table, four chairs and a sofa; bathroom and kitchen to the left, a door to the bedroom on the right. Walls, floor, ceiling, windows.

“Welcome! Let me show you round the place – it’s not big, but it’s big enough. I’m sorry that it’s not very clean: I’ve been out a lot, and in China, things just seem to get dirty. By the way, is it ok to take off your shoes? I’ve got these for you.” He grabbed a pair of gray plastic sandals, and put them on the floor in front of me. “Chinese custom.”

I put my suitcase away and started the usual chat while he made lunch for us. I’d been to China before, but only visited the big cities – Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong. I’d been on couch-surfing for three years, and thought it was a great way to meet people. I wasn’t afraid that someone would kill me, the worst that ever happened was a very boring guest. I did an imitation, he laughed, ice was broken.

He was originally from the States, Vermont. He got a three-year scholarship to study business at Nanjing University. First he lived on campus, but the dorm was horrible. He got this apartment through one of his Chinese friends. It was an old building, there were lots of problems, but the rent was cheap, and the location was great. I could stay with him for three nights, and he would help me find somewhere to live.


We weren’t always going to sleep together. These things appear like the result of purely physical forces, circumstances, fate, lust. But isn’t it in our power to resist, and for that very reason, isn’t giving in always a deliberate decision? Isn’t pleasure about willingly falling into the trap?

“That was very nice”, he said afterwards, “I had a really good time.” And the whole thing was actually very nice, not only because he was gently massaging my leg now. But that made my situation more complex. Did it mean I could stay longer than three nights? Or that I should prepare to leave earlier?

After lunch and coffee, we’d spent a whole afternoon together. He generously took me to the bank and the phone company, showed me the campus, market and supermarket. Then we sat down inside an underground bookstore, exploring the subtle differences between the US and Australia.

He took me to dinner at a local favourite, Harbin dumplings. “They make them fresh here everyday,” he commented as I gushed over my first bite of pork and coriander, “and it’s so cheap – you’ll come back.”

Later we met one of his friends at the ‘Burglars’ paradise’ beer cafe. “There’s a sister State relationship with Jiangsu, so the condition for my scholarship was, it had to be Nanjing. That’s how I found myself here. But I thought, why not – and it’s free money: might as well take it.” Then, to the friend: “What’s your favourite thing about the city?” She needed cues. He smiled: “Anyone for another beer?” That’s when I made my decision to give in.


Seasons passed, leaves fell, and one day men came with ladders and saw to prune the branches over the public staircase. By then, I was a local, and “Spicy Hunan” replaced “Flavours of Shaanxi”.

Sometimes, when I came back from errands or classes, I would look out from the top of the steps. I would gaze at the tall buildings in the distance, marvelling at the sunset oranges and pink smog. Or if night had fallen, I would follow the lights of the passing cars, buses and scooters flowing through the crossroads. People still met there, by the golden lions, like we met five months ago.


“Lucky there was a hospital nearby!” he was bleeding a lot, “and lucky you were staying with me.” He laughed. “That would be the best ad for couch-surfing.”

I tried explaining how the shower glass door suddenly shattered from the jackhammer vibrations, but I’m not sure the doctor understood. I sat nearby as he picked out each little shard, one by one, from his body.

“If I have to spend the night here, I don’t know, would you like to stay at my place a bit longer? I mean, until I can help you look for your own apartment.” I smiled. “It’s my first time inside a Chinese hospital, and I get to practice the language. Hard-core travel, that’s what I came for.”

The following day, something felt a bit wrong in his left arm. I pushed him to call his parents, who spoke to the doctors, and then again to him.

“Can I ask you something weird?” he said, “I need someone to pack stuff for me.”


In the end, I never had to look for my own place to stay. The glass had slightly damaged a nerve. He wouldn’t lose mobility, but he needed medical attention, and he couldn’t come back to China rightaway. “Would you like to take over the lease?” he wrote in his email, “here’s the number of my landlord – I think by local standards, he’s OK.” It was an old building and there were problems – the plumbing, the grease on the kitchen window, the constant works outside – but the rent was cheap, and the location was great.

We started long distance, not committing, just exchanging voice messages and photos on WeChat. Sausages drying on the street. A dog dressed as a fairy. Early morning sun over lake Winnipesaukee. The pesto shelves at Metro. I thought I would be gone before he came back. And when I signed up for a second term, it wasn’t only for him.

We met by the golden lions. “I’ll help you with your suitcase,” I said, as we walked up the steps. He smiled and let me do it. “Seriously, half of it is chocolate for you.”

Old people sat under the shelter, playing cards. The suitcase clacked on the gravel as we passed, one of their dogs barked. “Oh look,” he said, “Fat dog’s come to say hello.”

That’s when I made my decision to give in.


NOTE: This story is the first in a planned series of #52, recomposing my memories of a term in China through fiction. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. This story was written with the help of DraftQuest. Image and story are copyright @julienleyre.